Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Slaves to the Family

We humans consider our control of the planet to be so self-evident that we've never really given it another thought. I mean, we have by far the greatest impact on the overall environment, make the longest lasting monuments to our presence, and utilize every form of energy Earth has to offer. But in sheer acreage colonized, we get our butts handed to us. And not only handed to us, but driven relentlessly to assure the dominance of our real masters.

Admit it, we're slaves. Slaves to the family. The plant family Poaceae that is, the grasses. Think about it. What are the primary obstacles to the grass family's colonization of Earth? Forests? Steep slopes? Water? All of which we gladly bust our humps to help grass overcome. We cut down more forests and plant more cereal grasses every year. We terrace steep mountainsides to make grasses more comfortable. And we bring water to help them grow. Think about how much of Earth's land surface is covered in wheat, rice, corn, barley, oats, sorghum, millet - you name it, if there's a lot of it around it's probably a grass. Bamboo, the most useful plant on Earth, with more than 1500 recorded uses, is a grass. Hell, we even renamed our favorite flowering plant "grass," so as not to anger our masters.

My friend, Mark, committing treason against his master, contemplating how to exchange some of his grass for more useful...I mean stupid flowering...crops. Sorry.

Next, a Bit About Lawns

Ever consider just how much energy it takes to maintain a lawn? Nature maintains grasslands in 3 ways: 1) regular fire, 2) lack of water, 3) grazing pressure from hooved animals. Now your average suburban lawn owner is not terribly likely to maintain his prized monoculture with a regular burn regime. Which is probably for the best; I don't think the neighbors would be very keen on that. He's also just as unlikely to graze ungulates across the front yard, despite the obvious, and free, benefit of manure to fertilize, and pointed hooves to aerate, his plot. And he damn sure isn't letting his lawn dry out to avoid pulling those pesky maple seedlings.

But those maple seedlings aren't just there to annoy landscapers. That's nature's way of proceeding with ecosystem succession, and without the free environmental services Mother Nature offers for grassland maintenance, that considerable energy falls on the shoulders of the landscaper. Without fossil fuels the sheer comic folly of a lawn would come into focus pretty quickly, but with that magnificent energy subsidy, we humbly bow to our lords, and mow, water, fertilize, and remove competition. Anything else, your grace?

In ecological terms lawnscapes fall under one of two main categories: prairie or savannah. The archetypical prairie would look like an expanse of grass, perhaps bordered by a few flower beds. The garden-variety savannah would include a few trees. Probably not the most useful trees though, as that red maple provides shade in summer, lovely foliage in the fall, and some wildlife habitat, but no real contribution to self-reliance for the humans in the landscape. One can have their tree and eat it too.

Without those 3 ecosystem pressures I mentioned above, however, the energy required to maintain a prairie or savannah in the suburbs is immense. Nature's fecundity is relentless, pushing lawns to become pioneer shrublands, followed by primary forest, and eventually maturing into whatever the dominant local forested system might be. The lawnkeeper has to stop her. And stop her. And stop her again. Every time we mow, pull, and spray for weeds, we are in essence setting back the successional clock. And every time, like clockwork, Nature responds by sending out her army of maples, privet, dandelions, chicory, plantain, coinwort, and myriad others, bent on fixing the problem we've created. The imbalance in the system.

In the United States alone, our graminoid masters have hoodwinked us into the conversion of 50,000 square miles of (originally) old-growth forest into grassy landscapes. Sargeant St. Augustine, Captain Centipede, First Leiutenant Fescue, and more recently the Zoysia Czar, have whipped us and cajoled us into prostrate servitude. Literally. How many suburbanites can you find on their knees every weekend, wrenching dandelions out by their enormous (and terrifically useful) taproots, so that King Lawn can prosper? When you awaken from the Poacic Matrix, the vista will make you nauseous. For what do these lawns have to offer besides a popular cultural asthetic? There's no dog food out there, or cat food, or goldfish food, and certainly nothing a human could eat. We fill our homes with animals that require energy to maintain, including us, then turn right around and waste the very gift of land that could be used to maintain them.

Our masters have our complete attention. Their conquest of planet Earth is nearing completion. Maybe as individuals we can't fight effectively against the banks and corporations that seem to have a free pass to rape and destroy, but we can do something about the lawn out front. We can turn 50,000 square miles of toxic wasteland into productive horticultural space, and in the process take a significant burden off of our dying farmland. The header photo of my blog is a shot of my front yard in Spokane, WA, USA, 2009. We ate like royalty that summer, and paid for chiropractic care with produce. Now I'm not sure just how many layers of biosphere-destroying formal economy that removed from my family's footprint, but it was the most delicious civil disobedience I've ever engaged in!


  1. Tripp, congrats to you! And keep up the good works. Don't let the doomers on CFN get you down, in the end, you and yours may well be the last ones standing.
    And enjoy that nice, fresh, ripe food, there is nothing like it you can find in any store.
    Just try cutting out the driving as much as you can, cut the OIL out.
    Your friend, Dee Jones, in Costa Rica

  2. Ha, ha, Tripp, my front lawn is now grazed by unjulates!

    I used to mow it, but the city took part of my land to widen the road in front of my house.

    They hired a redneck asshole to bulldoze my front lawn. The bulldozer left major ruts, making mowing a painful job.

    For a year, I left my lawn unmowed, just to piss off the city officials, but it bugged me, also.

    So I fenced it off, and turned my goats loose!

    That'll teach 'em!

  3. I have taken to 'taming' my grassy areas around fruit trees with a scythe. A great tool when you get a handle on it. Keep up the good work.


  4. that was funny! on their knees every weekend. the worst is the gold course grass. i looks stupid as a lawn for a house. we have moss and oak leaves for our yard in ATL and you saw what it is at chickory....i grew some rye as a cover crop and will never ever do that again. they did not give up the ghost in spring - it was like pulling a sunfish in the boat. epic struggle.

    dee i liked costa rica very much. my husband was born in chile and i guess we could go there, but I dont want to miss it. whatever "it" is.
    its an edgy and exhilarating time.

    Id love to have goats but i have no room left in my car!

  5. Dee, will do! We're working on it, and are surprised by how psychologically freeing every calorie of energy we DON'T spend can be. Sometimes I get jealous of you guys down in the tropics, but I'm a temperate boy at heart I'm afraid...

    Wage! Construction sucks, and goats rock. Simple equation. I've been taking my goat out to the front yard to eat at least once a day lately. Just have to watch her around the carrots and young figs;)

    Olmec, I'm fascinated by hand tools of the past, and hope to venture into using more them soon. A scythe is high on my list! What's the trick?

    Dovey, one day you'll have goats. I have no doubt. They are amazing and very useful creatures. We'll be breeding Briggs in January if all goes well. Can't wait to see those cute little kids next summer! And start making goat cheese and butter too...

  6. MMMMM! goat cheese. My wife and I moved out to the country to raise goats a few years ago. At this point we're making 100lbs a week of chevre on average and we don't have real jobs any more.

    We aren't at war with our grass though. We're happily slaving away to make the grass more comfy. It's our #1 solar collector. The grass processes the sunlight into goat feed, goats process it into milk, which we process into cheese. All the whey goes to a couple of hogs that turn that byproduct into a profit center.

    It's not a totally closed loop yet but I intend to one day grow enough high quality gas to not have any hay or feed brought in by carbon intensive means. I highly recommend the writing of Allan Nation, Jim Gerrish, Joel Salatin, and Greg Judy for info on how grass can solve modern agriculture's many problems.

  7. CS, I'm totally down with using grass to our real benefit, just against grass using us for its! If you'll notice, all my examples are either cereals or turf grasses. Corn being the most wide-spread invasive species in N. America. (Where are the herbicide folks??) But I understand your point and am familiar with the use of grass for ecological rehab (and healthy, tasty meat). In fact I can't think of anything more important than the carbon sequestration work being done with grass by the likes of Salatin. Good on ya for being part of that!

    Had the privilege of attending a workshop taught by Darren Doherty in central Cal a year ago, almost to the day. His work with the Yeoman's plow and Keyline design is unparalled in my opinion.

    This was mostly just a comical piece based on Michael Pollen's book, "The Botany of Desire."

    I'd like to hear more about your goat operation though! Hope you stick around...

  8. Besides, you're harnessing nature's free environmental services to maintain grassland via #3 on my list! Getting an energy return instead of making an investment. Different system altogether.

  9. Yeah, I definitely get difference between a suburban lawn and a working ecosystem based on animal/grass interaction. And I figured you did as well, I should have been more clear.

    I'm sticking around. You're in my reader. I think I got here from clusterfuck nation. My wife has a blog about our exploits. She hasn't updated it since she got on Facebook though.


  10. Reading about keylines now. Amazing.

  11. Christian, your wife is way more fun to read than I am!

    You know how you run into a new word or phrase every now and then that you just know right away will be part of your personal lexicon from then on?

    "Freezer camp" will now take its proper place beside asshat and fuck trophy...

    I'm still laughin'.

  12. Freezer Camp has been a popular one. She was a writer for American Greetings before she became farmette. She has a wicked sense of humor.

  13. Since I don't buy into the whole exotic Polynesian, opposites attract idea, I'd guess that you have quite a sense of humor yourself!

    A few goat questions (I'll have more):

    1) We have a young Kiko female, but want to head toward milk more than meat. Is Kiko a decent milk producer? I notice that you guys, like most goat dairies, have Nubians (I think).

    2) I understand we can control the pungency of the milk with diet. Any specific recommendations?

    3) What age is best for first breeding?

    4) Do you guys do the intensive rotational grazing promoted by Joel Salatin?

    Thanks for your help!

  14. I'm jealous, I really like the Kikos. I would like to do some Nubian X Kiko and see what kind of milker it would make. I don't think that pure Kikos are great milkers but that doesn't mean that your individual doe might not be a good one. I would breed her and find out. Was she a bottle baby? We raise all of our milkers on bottles. It makes them very easy to handle once they grow up and start producing. If she was raised by mama she might have some trouble letting you milk her, but again, it varies with the individual. We usually breed them when they weigh at least 80 Lbs. Usually about 9-10 months, but we do it based on weight, not age.

    There are millions of opinions about the pungency of the milk. Mine is that breed is the #1 factor and handling is the #2.

    #1: Nubians and Nigerians make the sweetest milk but they also produce a lot less. Most of my girls give less than a gallon a day at their peak. With some hardcore culling we could raise that average but we choose to keep some animals that are less than stellar because we are suckers. The Alpine breeds all make the really stinky milk. Saanens are the most prolific milkers and 2 gallons a day is not uncommon. But your cheese will be very goaty. That's not my thing.

    #2 Handling: We get our milk down to 38 degrees as quick as possible. We only pour our milk twice, once out of the surge bucket (milk machine) and once into the pasteurizer/cheese vat. We never, never pump milk. The key to good cheese is delicate handling and keeping it cold. Also, you must be meticulous with washing and sanitizing all your gear. If milk gets left behind in a tube or a bucket or something, when it comes into contact with fresh milk it will stink up the whole batch.

    I have been trying to get a rotational grazing scheme going for 3 years but I really haven't got it sorted yet. I hope that this winter I'll be able to concentrate on it. It is my plan to be no input someday and that means MIG grazing.

  15. I'm jealous. I'd like to do some Kiko X Nubian and see what kind of milker she'd make. I don't think that Kikos are known for milk but that doesn't mean that your doe wouldn't make a good milker. Some individuals defy the characteristics of the breed.

    The pungency of the milk comes from breed and handling. The swiss breeds (which give way more milk)have the stinky milk. The Nubians and Nigerians have the sweet milk. The handling is super important. All the equipment must be washed and sanitized carefully. And it must be cooled down rapidly after milking.

    We breed them when they weigh 90 Lbs. Thats usually around 9-10 mos, depending on the goat.

    I intend to one day be an excellent MIG grassfarmer but I am not there yet. I think Salatin has really got it figured out. I know he's a pretty controversial character among grass fed producers but I consider myself a fan. You should subscribe to "Stockman Grassfarmer". It is mainly about cattle but there is tons of info that crosses over to any type of animal/grass operation. I think it fits nicely with permaculture.

  16. Sorry for the double post. Chome weirded out on me. You can delete the second one.

  17. I know people who grow grass for the sheer manly joy of cutting it, preferably on a riding lawnmower. The cult of Grass Worship is an evil one, but has almost died out in my part of North Seattle. Most of us have replaced our lawns with crops. I have two Lawn Cult neighbors who hire poison companies to spray their turf, and the poison drifts onto our gardens. A lot of the fine farmland in the Willamette Valley in W. Oregon is used to grow grass seed. In the spring, when the grass blooms, my grass allergies make it impossible to breath anywhere south of Portland. What a waste of good land!

    The City of Seattle is coming around - it is allowing some grass parkland to be turned into orchards and pea-patch gardens.

  18. Su, no doubt better things could be done with the beautiful soil of the Willamette Valley! Growing sod? What a crime! Argh!

    But that is stellar news about North Seattle. We have a lot of work to do here in middle Georgia. Even in my poor-ish neighborhood no one seems to know what to do with open land. Good news though is that we have tons of it! So when they get it, it's just a matter of doing it.

    Like Heinberg says, we don't need to evolve new genes, we just need to propogate new memes.

    Christian, no worries on the double post, mate. Done it plenty of times myself when my connection is having issues. So no alpine breeds, OK. I think we'll give our Kiko a shot before we buy a Nubian, but she is nowhere near 90 lbs yet, despite being 9 months old. Is that bad? Perhaps meat breed genes we shouldn't pass on?